When discussing his approach to broadcasting, CBS Radio's Don Howe is a model of civility. "I really believe that radio is a competitive medium," he maintains, "and I feel it's very fair to creatively compete to reach audiences."
In practice, though, Howe's business philosophy is anything but polite. During the past twenty years, no radio executive in Denver has been more antagonistic -- or more successful. He ruled Clear Channel Denver's FM properties circa the '90s, and on his watch, stations such as the Fox and KBPI didn't just dominate the rock-radio landscape; they flat-out destroyed numerous opponents even as they spawned headlines and stoked controversy. And while he's currently the Denver market manager for CBS Radio, an entity whose ethos is more benign than the one associated with Clear Channel and, especially, its corporate predecessor, Jacor, Howe retains his jugular-slashing instincts.
For proof, consider the latest tactics he's employed on behalf of KWLI/The Wolf, a country signal that's one of three CBS outlets he oversees; the others are KIMN-FM/Mix 100 and KOOL-105. Rather than simply declaring his intention to take down KYGO, which has ruled the country demographic for ages, he hit the outlet where it hurts most -- in its talent pool. First he snapped up Jonathan Wilde, one-third of KYGO's ultra-popular morning show; Wilde and former colleagues Kelly Ford and Steve "Mudflap" McGrew had just been named the nation's top major-market radio crew at the 2006 Country Music Awards. Then, to make this assault/insult sting even more, Howe hired away Tracy Taylor, KYGO's evening yakker. She'll co-host an afternoon show with Wilde that's slated to debut on February 19.
Far from expressing any guilt regarding these events, Howe accuses KYGO of hubris and neglect for not locking Wilde and Taylor into contracts that would have prevented the very sort of raid he happily conducted. "Imagine the Fox letting Rick Lewis and Michael Floorwax go -- not signing them and allowing a window to open up that let others talk to them," he says. "To me, that sends the wrong message to your personalities. But the opportunity was there, and we took it."
The previous phrase succinctly describes how he's conducted his career. In 1983, shortly after graduating from the University of Cincinnati, named for the city where he was raised, Howe landed a job selling advertising for the local NFL franchise, the Bengals. Unfortunately, the league soon went on strike, forcing him to peddle a product that wasn't on the field. So he began casting around for alternative employment, and found it at radio operations in Tampa, Atlanta and, finally, Denver, where he was recruited by Jacor to serve as general sales manager for KOAQ-FM, an adult-contemporary outlet. There he established a reputation for attention-getting trickery with his launch of Morning Flakes, a new a.m. show starring Dave Rickards and Abby Bonell. "We hadn't publicly called them Morning Flakes yet, so we created a generic brand of cereal called Morning Flakes and used an out-of-state ad agency to promote it on competing stations," he recalls.
Inspired though it was, the stunt couldn't save KOAQ, which was transformed into the classic-rocking Fox at the dawn of the next decade. Among the first tasks for Howe, who'd been promoted to general manager, was to assemble the Fox's morning team, and he came up with the idea of enlisting Floorwax, a standup comic who guested on the station whenever he toured through Denver. At first Floorwax was partnered with the Fox's program director, Steve Brill, "who fancied himself a host," Howe notes. "But it failed miserably." A search for new blood turned up Lewis, and after witnessing the connection between him and Floorwax, Howe sacked Brill because "his focus was in the wrong place." The rest, he says, "is history."
Indeed, Lewis and Floorwax quickly strode to the top of the listenership pile thanks to bawdiness that was fairly new to the Colorado airwaves at the time, and they're still standing; as the preeminent Denver radio duo of their generation, they turned a failing signal into a perennial powerhouse, albeit one whose current ratings are softer than usual. By way of thanks, Howe was eventually put in charge of all Jacor's FMs, which came to include KBPI, KBCO, KTCL and what is currently known as KPTT-FM/The Party. These signals collected the lion's share of FM-radio revenue in Denver during Howe's stint, partly because of his skill at undermining any station that dared to challenge Jacor's hegemony. "I remember when the Hawk was a competing classic-rock station in town," Howe says. "They brought the Who in concert, and right as the lights went down at the show, the Fox logo appeared miraculously over the whole stage." He chuckles while adding, "I don't know how that happened. Things like that always seemed to be happening to our competitors."
In the meantime, KBPI became known for staffing bad boys who sometimes went one joke over the line. For instance, Stephen Meade, aka Willie B., generated oodles of negative press in 2000 after leading off-road-vehicle enthusiasts onto muddy private property said to serve as a habitat for the rare boreal toad. Howe thinks environmental issues related to this last incident were largely bogus: "To this day, I don't think anyone's seen a boreal toad up there," he argues. As for whether Jacor (and, later, Clear Channel) only pretended to be upset by such shenanigans, he acknowledges that "the personalities and the promotions the stations were doing tended to be aggressive, and our culture was to give our people some rope and let them make some decisions for themselves. But never did we tell them, ŒGo in and do something, however bad, and at least we'll get our call letters into the paper.'"
Poisonous press certainly didn't hurt Howe from a corporate standpoint. The Friday after 9/11, he was elevated to senior vice president for Clear Channel's West Coast region, which put him in charge of a hundred stations mostly in California, where he moved. The next year, he was put in charge of Clear Channel Advantage, which he calls "a national cross-platform group whose goal was to aggregate our media properties for larger advertisers." He held this position for over two years, but although it allowed him to relocate to Denver, the synergies envisioned by Clear Channel never really developed. Howe's corporate masters offered him other opportunities, but he didn't want to move his family again; he has three sons between 15 and 21. Frustrated, he actually left the radio biz for six months before being lured back by CBS in June 2005.
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In the eighteen months or so since, Howe has resisted the urge to conduct major surgery on the Mix. He feels morning Mixers Dom Testa and Jane London constitute "one of the best shows I've ever worked with; they're the eyes and ears of women 25-54 in this market. And advertisers love the station, because it really pulls for them." But KOOL has received a shakeup, with veteran morning hosts J.J. McKay and Rick "The Coach" Marshall getting the heave-ho last year in favor of the younger-skewing Dan Mitchell, Kenny Campbell and Melanie Garrett. (McKay and Marshall can now be heard online at www.JJandtheCoach.com.) Moreover, KOOL has all but eliminated the '50s and early-'60s fare that once formed the station's spine in order to attract the 54-and-under folks advertisers covet.
As for the other CBS station, it used the Jammin' Oldies format until Howe flipped it to variety-oriented country in December 2005 and dubbed the result Willie. Over the first nine months or so, "we saw some nice growth," Howe allows. "But ultimately, research showed that the name Willie was too synonymous with Willie Nelson. Too many people weren't tuning in because they thought all they'd get was a certain seventy-year-old country singer." Hence he rebranded the outlet as the Wolf, contemporized the music and fired a shot across KYGO's bow by inking Wilde and Taylor. With a major campaign in the offing, he says, "KYGO is figuring out that not only are we in this for the long haul, but we're going to have a real good shot at beating them."
If he's right, civility will have nothing to do with it. Denver's toughest radio executive talks about (and justifies) past battles and his latest series of ballsy maneuvers.